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The cost of downtime versus the cost of a new part – are these the only options?

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Bradley McBain, managing director of MBA Engineering, explains how the refurbishment of cutting heads can provide an economical alternative to buying replacement parts

Laser cutting machines are very costly investments, often with particularly large upfront costs. If the investment is worthwhile, the machine will pay for itself with a rise in production levels, but what about the ongoing cost of servicing and maintaining these machines?

 

 

Common faults such as problems with laser heads can cost a manufacturer up to £30,000 to replace. As a faulty head can cause so much downtime leading to a loss in income, purchasing a brand-new part can seem like the only option to get the machine up and running again as quickly as possible. Here I will explain to you that this is not in fact the case.

Small particles, big problems

There are a number of elements that can reduce the lifespan of a fibre laser cutting head. It goes without saying, the higher the power, the higher the stress on the optics, which is also heightened by fibre lasers having a much smaller spot size than CO2 lasers. But there are a lot more factors that can massively affect the head’s integrity. 

Due to the small spot size of the laser beam and the optic composition, fibre laser cutting heads are extremely sensitive to contamination. Particles so small they can only be seen through a microscope pose serious problems, so cleanliness is paramount. 

To assist with this need for cleanliness, purge gases are used to positively pressurise the chamber to try and prevent small contaminants from entering the cutting head. Unfortunately, this isn’t always a reliable solution as the gases can also carry pollutants capable of negatively effecting the optics. 

These factors show that a fibre laser head will run into contaminant issues at some point within its life. There are companies working towards improving the sensitivity of the optics, which we should see in the market in the near future, but coating and machining optics are proving to be a juggling act with suppliers, adding pressure to improve the power handling and heat dissipation, as well as keeping the costs down. 

Optic composition does not lend itself to heat dissipation, so companies are still exploring cooling methods to improve the lifespan of a cutting head, but to this day the cooling is often limited to the laser head coupling point. 

What can be done?

With all this in mind, what can manufacturers do to ensure they are prepared when they run into any of these issues? 

The first step would be to understand how often you are likely to experience these faults. Based on a 6kW laser cutting machine as an average, the optics typically need changing once or twice a year. This may differ for lower and higher power machines, but ultimately the higher the power of the cutting head, the more stress on the optics – similar to a car with a fine-tuned engine. 

It’s also worth researching the warranties provided with the cutting heads. Most companies will offer warranty on the head as a whole, but optics are not generally covered under warranty as an industry standard as optics manufacturers cannot control the cutting process, which if not optimised, can damage and stress the optics. In addition, when the warranty on a head runs out, most manufacturers believe investing in a new head every time a fault arises is the only option to get back up and running as quickly as possible.

This is not the case, however, as firms such as MBA Engineering offer refurbishment services that offer manufacturers the option to have their cutting head restored to working condition for a fraction of the price of a brand-new head, providing manufacturers an alternative when experiencing unexpected downtime.  

Cutting heads not only require large investment initially, but are also known to develop faults as much as twice a year, leading to costly downtime. (Credit: MBA Engineering)

Anticipating downtime would benefit manufacturers massively, but unfortunately, not all issues can be seen on the horizon. However, is there a way a manufacturer can prepare for the worst-case scenario? 

In some cases, manufacturers will purchase two cutting heads when they first obtain a cutting system, which while significantly increasing the initial investment, does result in a relatively small amount of downtime. This is because when one cutting head fails, the downtime is only equal to the amount of time taken to install the secondary head. The faulty head can then be taken away for repair while the cutting machine continues working at the factory with the secondary head. 

Other manufactures choose to only purchase the replacement head once the first one fails, which is not only expensive, but also creates additional downtime, as they have to actually source the new head before they can install it.

As an economical alternative to both these options, the service offered by MBA Engineering, for example, instead aims to refurbish a faulty cutting head and return it within 24 hours. In this case, the downtime equals the time taken to travel to the site, dismantle the head, return to the workshop and repair before returning and reinstalling.

To demonstrate the benefits of this alternative: say, for example, purchasing and installing a new cutting head takes between 8-10 hours, this would cost around £20,000. If instead our restoration service was used, took a similar amount of time and cost only £4,000, then you’re looking at an average of cost of £444 per hour of downtime compared to the £2,222 per hour when purchasing the new cutting head.

With downtime often causing manufacturers a loss in production, having this sort of option available can be very reassuring. The longevity of a cutting head is compromised by a number of influences, from cutting reflective materials to the power of the laser source, and replacement parts can be extremely costly. 

Taking this into account, the head refurbishment service is one that shouldn’t be overlooked. If two cutting heads weren’t invested in initially, the possibility of being able to minimise the cost of downtime by restoring a single head to working condition, rather than having to replace it with a brand-new one, can provide great peace of mind to manufacturers.

In an industry where time is money, manufacturers need to be constantly on the lookout for new means to minimise the cost of downtime and being aware of these beneficial services can be a huge advantage for a manufacturer when a head can falter as much as twice a year.

Related articles 

Cut above for thick plate processing - Greg Blackman discovers that new beam shaping technology is speeding up and improving the quality of thick plate laser cutting 

Improving sheet metal cutting using a high-power fibre laser with variable beam quality - Paul Harrison, chief engineer for product applications at SPI Lasers, describes a new mode of operation for fibre lasers that enables beam quality to be varied on demand

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